COP26: Success Not an Option

Against the Current, No. 216, January-February 2022

Daniel Tanuro

THE GLASGOW CONFERENCE (COP26) should have given priority to 1) making good on the promise of the “developed” countries to contribute to the Green Climate Fund, from 2020 onwards, at least one hundred billion dollars a year to help the global South meet the climate challenge; 2) forcing these same countries to intervene financially to cover the enormous “loss and damage” caused by warming, especially in the “least developed countries” and small island states; 3) “raising the climate ambitions” of governments to achieve the adopted COP21 (Paris, 2015) goal of “keeping the temperature increase well below 2°C while continuing efforts not to exceed 1.5°C compared to the pre-industrial period.”

The balance sheet is clear: on paper, Glasgow clarifies the ambiguous Paris goal by making it more radical (1.5°C is now the target) and mentions the responsibility of fossil fuels; but in practice, the conference did not take any steps to stop the catastrophe.

A “step in the right direction,” some said. On the contrary: obsessed with the post-Covid neoliberal recovery and their geostrategic rivalries, the masters of the world decided to: 1) postpone the promise of one hundred billion for the Green Fund; 2) say no to compensation for “loss and damage;” 3) leave the field almost completely free for fossil fuels; 4) consider climate stabilization as a market for “carbon offsets” and technologies; 5) endow this market with a global mechanism for trading “rights to pollute;” 6) last but not least, entrust the management of this market to finance…which means to the rich whose investments and lifestyles are the fundamental cause of global warming.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on 1.5°C (2019) had demonstrated the imperative need to stay below 1.5°C. The dangers of warming had been underestimated. Beyond 1.5°C, cascades of positive feedbacks threaten to tip the Earth into a “hothouse planet” regime.

This would have dire consequences (including a rise in sea levels of 13 meters or more). The average surface temperature has risen by 1.1 to 1.2°C compared to the pre-industrial era. At the current rate, the 1.5°C mark will be passed by 2030… Conclusion: “net” global CO2 emissions must be reduced by at least 50% before 2030, by 100% before 2050 and become negative in the second half of the century.

A Bombshell for Capital

The report was a bombshell. The leaders of the capitalist class can no longer bury their heads in the sand. Those with a modicum of brains have to admit that global warming can spiral out of control to the point of endangering their system.

In this context a capitalist policy that claims to be “based on the best science,” even when carried by neoliberals like Boris Johnson, could not possibly maintain the ambiguity of the Paris agreement… The British presidency of COP26 proposed that a maximum of 1.5°C should be the sole target, and this clarification was ratified by the Conference.

The IPCC is explicit: the burning of fossil fuels plays a key role in warming. As a result, the shockwaves of the 1.5°C report were felt even by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

In 2021, the IEA issued a report that clearly states that “carbon neutrality” in 2050 requires drastic measures in the very short term: a ban from 2021 on the development of new oil and gas fields, the opening of new coal mines, the expansion of existing coal mines, or the authorization of the construction of new coal-fired power stations; the abandonment of coal from 2030 in the “advanced” economies; and the closure of all coal- and oil-fired power stations worldwide from 2040.

This report was also a bombshell. The Agency was suddenly advocating a radical shift towards a “green capitalism” organized around renewables. Just as it could not maintain the ambiguity of Paris, the Glasgow summit could not continue to hide the responsibility of fossils. Under pressure from the energy sector and major users, every COP since 1992 had avoided the subject!

This silence was no longer tenable. The British presidency submitted a draft declaration to delegates calling on parties to “accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels.” This text was neutralized to “phasing down” (by a last-minute intervention by India), but the mention of fossils remains in the final version.

Challenge More Daunting Every Year

The Paris agreement made a big gap between the goal (”keeping the temperature increase well below, etc.”) and the national climate plans, or “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDCs). On the basis of these NDCs, the IPCC projected a temperature increase of about 3.5°C in 2100. To reduce this “emissions gap,” the COP21 adopted the principle of a review every five years, to “raise ambitions.”

This is the gap (surplus emissions) that must be elim­inated before 2030 to stay below the 1.5°C increase. In September 2020, the gap, all greenhouse gases included, is estimated at between 23 and 27 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 equivalent. Global emissions must therefore be halved.

With the 2020 summit cancelled (pandemic), the governments decided to make another effort to “raise the ambitions” for Glasgow. The result: an additional 3.3 to 4.7 Gt of reductions. On this basis, the scientific network Climate Action Tracker projects a warming of +2.4°C (range: +1.9 to +3°C).

Johann Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute, delivered the ten key messages of the latest science to the COP. The first is that global emissions of CO2 alone need to be reduced each year by 2Gt (5%) by 2030 to have a 50/50 chance of staying below 1.5°C, and by 4Gt (10%) to have a two-thirds chance of staying below 1.5°C. A similar reduction is required for methane and nitrous oxide.

There is no hope of achieving this at a five-yearly rate of NDC revision. Glasgow therefore decided to move to an annual rate. Seen from afar, this seems to leave a slender chance of success. Seen from up close, it is an illusion.

First: climate justice must be taken into account. Reductions of five and 10% are global targets, to be modulated to take account of the “differentiated responsibilities” of countries. Rockström presented the most recent assessment on the subject: the richest one per cent of the world’s population must divide its emissions by 30, while the poorest 50% can multiply them by three. This clearly shows that the climate is a class issue, a major issue in the conflict between the possessing minority and the dispossessed majority.

Second: a reduction of 2 or 4 Gt/year is linear in mathematical terms, but not in economic, social and political terms. The more emissions are reduced (or reductions are attempted), and the shorter the timeframe, the more emissions reduction runs up against capitalist demands for growth and profit.

This is very concrete: in the energy sector, the bosses are putting the brakes on fossil fuel investments, to limit the “stranded assets.” As fossil fuels cover more than 80% of the needs, a peak in energy supply will probably precede the peak in demand.
Hence, high prices. This is good for the fossil fuel companies, but it fuels inflation, frustrates the post-covid recovery and weighs heavily on the working classes. They can fight back, or give their votes to national-populists. Both options create instability.

Calming prices and avoiding shortages would require boosting fossil fuel production. China has done it for coal and Biden has asked (unsuccessfully) Saudi Arabia and Russia to do it for oil. But boosting fossil fuels = boosting emissions…. It’s a squaring of the circle.

Insurmountable Contradiction

China and the United States issued a joint statement at the COP. It will be of no use in breaking the deadlock. It is mainly a statement for the sake of appearances. The two great powers have an interest in posing together as the guarantors of the world’s stability and its climate. Perhaps they will try to collaborate on a partial aspect of climate policy (methane emissions?).

But the underlying tensions are very strong and tend to deepen the conflicts. In the United States, the Democratic majority is hanging by a thread: Manchin, the loyal friend of coal. The Republicans have won the governorship of Virginia, hope to win the mid-term elections, and are campaigning against higher fuel prices. Their victory would change a lot!

In China, the stability of the bureaucracy depends on the progress of the average standard of living on the one hand, and on nationalist exaltation on the other. The revival of coal does not prevent the rise in oil prices. There are many reasons for Beijing to continue to turn inward, accelerating its plans to reclaim Taiwan. All this is very unstable.

Wherever you look at the problem, you come up against the impossibility of the capitalist energy transition: you cannot at the same time revive a growth economy based on 80% fossil fuels, replace fossil fuels with renewables, and drastically reduce emissions in the very short term. It is physically impossible.

Either we reduce production to achieve the transition, or we sacrifice the transition to GDP growth. However, “capitalism without growth is a contradiction in terms” (Joseph Schumpeter).

Conclusion: the contradiction is insoluble, except through a revolutionary systemic change. As long as this historical possibility does not become a concrete possibility, the contradiction will become more and more serious with every attempt to reduce emissions.

Each capitalist tries to shift the burden to their competitors and to the workers. Each capitalist class uses its state to shift the burden to rival states and to the working classes. And the most polluting states are imperialist states that dominate the poorest.

Consequently, the ecological/climate crisis will be combined with serious economic, social and political (and even military) upheavals along the following lines: 1) deepening social tensions, growing crisis of regime legitimacy, growing political instability and an increased tendency towards authoritarianism; 2) neo-colonial policies of increasing brutality towards the peoples of the South, especially migrants, and especially women; 3) more acute rivalry between capitalists and between capitalist states; in particular 4) growing geostrategic U.S.-China tensions.

To believe that such a context would be conducive to the annual increment of climate agreements that are equal to the challenge is to believe in Father Christmas.

Let’s insist on this point: there is no structural solution without a global decrease in production, consumption and transport, modulated with respect for social justice. It is imperative to “produce less, transport less, consume less and share more” (especially the wealth and the necessary working time).

A capitalist policy of regulation, with an increased role for the state, is therefore not an alternative to the crisis, although it could alleviate the difficulty. But here is a second contradiction: Capital does not want this policy.

There has been a lot of press coverage of the “methane deal.” At the COP, more than 100 countries promised to cut their emissions by 30% by 2030. If this were the case, warming in 2050 would be 0.2°C lower than projected (less than half the potential).

But this is only a declaration of intent. There are no quotas per country, no funding for the countries of the South, no sanctions for non-compliance… The United States, European Union and Canada seem willing to act, it’s true, and it’s easy to see why: apart from Trump, the capitalist leaders are starting to panic.

Limiting methane is a fairly easy course of action. But there is a long way to go: China and Russia have not signed the Glasgow text. It is also easy to understand why: they are two major emitters. Their absence will obviously serve as a pretext for capitalists in other countries to resist.

As a result, it is doubtful that anything will be imposed on them. Instead, incentives and taxes will be used, in the hope that the cost of investment will fall below the price of the gas saved. The working classes will foot the bill.

The Message to Capital

A few months before COP21, François Hollande opened the business climate summit in Paris by saying: “Businesses are essential because they are the ones who will translate, through the commitments that will be made, the changes that will be necessary: energy efficiency, the rise of renewable energies, the ability to transport oneself with a mobility that does not consume energy [sic!], energy storage, the mode of construction of habitats, the organization of cities, and also the participation in the transition, in the adaptation of countries that are developing.”

We can only copy here the interpretation of this statement: “Beloved capitalists, we, the politicians, offer you the planet, the cities and the forests, the soils and the oceans, we even offer you the market of the adaptation of the countries of the South to the catastrophe that you are imposing on them; everything is yours, take it: this is the message.”

From the point of view of capital, it is wrong to say that COP26 is “blah blah blah” (Greta Thunberg). It is rather a monstrous apotheosis of neoliberalism. This summit took a significant step forward on the road to the total commodification of the Earth, its ecosystems and its inhabitants. For the benefit of finance, and at the expense of Nature and the people.

The political leaders all (or almost all) recognize this: the urgency is maximum, the risk is immeasurable, there is not a moment to lose. And yet, from one COP to the next, despite the light shed by “The best Science available,” the time to fight back is being wasted and the march to the abyss is accelerating.

This aberrant, hallucinatory and frightening reality does not result from the imbecility of this or that official, nor from the plot of occult forces: it results from the fundamental laws of Capitalism, and these laws also corrupt the “best Science.”

Based on competition for profit, this mode of production forces millions of capitalists, on pain of economic death, to make millions of investment decisions at every moment which aim to increase the productivity of labor through machines. The resulting tendency of the falling rate of profit is compensated by an increase in the mass of goods produced, an increase in the exploitation of labor power, and an increase in the exploitation of other natural resources.

This system functions like an automaton out of all control. It carries with it, like a cloud, not only war but also the potential for unlimited development, unlimited growth in inequality and unlimited further ecological destruction.

It must be forcefully repeated: there is an insurmountable antagonism between prolonging this system and safeguarding the planet as an environment conducive to life and humanity. Therefore, as Lenin did when war broke out in 1914, we must to begin with, and independently of the balance of power, dare to make a clear diagnosis: the situation illustrates the objective necessity of revolution.

With the Glasgow COP, a brief cycle of increasingly urgent warnings begins: either the convergence of social mobilizations will make it possible to begin to bridge the enormous gap between this objective situation and the level of consciousness and organization of the exploited and oppressed (the “subjective factor”), or the automaton will drive us ever deeper into a barbarism of unprecedented proportions.

This guest editorial is excerpted from the opening and conclusion of an extensive article by Daniel Tanuro, titled “Neoliberal apotheosis: COP26 creates the global fire market and offers it to capitalist arsonists, at the expense of the people.” The full text with footnotes, which also includes treatments of methane emissions, reforestation and other issues, is posted at https://fourth.international/en/394

January-February 2022, ATC 216

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